The ERWC and the CAASPP

Teachers have been asking, “Does the ERWC prepare students for the CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress)?” The CAASPP includes the Smarter Balanced English Language Arts assessments, part of which is the “Argumentative Performance Task Full Write.” The sample “Performance Task” on the Smarter Balanced website concerns “Financial Literacy.”

In the sample task, the students are told that their school is considering offering a financial literacy course. The students read four journalistic sources: an article from the New York Times about the need for financial literacy, recommending a particular kind of course; an article from the Chicago Tribune about problems with financial education, citing research showing that such courses are not effective and in fact may be a “racket”; a second article from the New York Times about the drawbacks of financial literacy courses, recommending “just in time” education, simple rules of thumb, and making the financial system more user-friendly; and an article from the Baltimore Sun about the issues involved in implementing a mandated financial literacy course at a particular school.

The first article claims that “Research shows that this type of financial education tends to resonate with the students later,” but cites only one study. The second article reports on another study of a financial literacy course, which concludes “We find no effect.” The third article reports on a meta-analysis of 168 studies and concludes, “financial education is laudable, but not particularly helpful.” The fourth article cites no research, but costs out a required financial literacy course at a single school at $600,000 a year.  Financial literacy courses don’t actually seem like a good idea, given these sources.

In Part 1 of the task, the students are asked to do two things: 1) Determine which source “would most likely be relevant to students researching new approaches to increasing people’s financial literacy,” supporting their choice with two details from the article, and 2) “Paraphrase information from Source #1 that refutes information from Source #2 without plagiarizing.” (I would have put a comma after Source #2, to clarify that they mean that the student is the potential plagiarizer, not Source #2. By “without plagiarizing” I suppose they are emphasizing the imperative to “paraphrase,” not to quote, though proper quotations with citation would not be plagiarizing.)

In Part 2, they are given the following prompt:

Today, in preparation for the school board meeting, you will write a multi-paragraph essay in which you take a stance on the topic of financial literacy courses. Make sure you establish an argumentative claim, address potential counter arguments, and support your claim from the sources you have read. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details of facts directly from the sources.

Then the students are instructed to plan, write, revise, and edit their “multi-paragraph argumentative essay.”

One could look at the questions in Part 1 as a kind of scaffolding for the writing task in Part 2. In fact, this performance task is rather like an ERWC module at the end of the process of gradual release of responsibility. It has multiple texts that take different positions from different perspectives, and it asks students to synthesize the material, take a position, and support it with evidence from the sources. This is basic ERWC practice.  The questions in Part 1, sitting in between the readings and the writing task, face both ways. They cause the student to re-read the texts in relation to one another and also to think about how they might use them in writing.

The scoring guide is also consistent with ERWC. The sample papers that are now available for most ERWC modules, at least the ones from 7th to 10th grade, were scored using the Smarter Balanced scoring guide (12th grade samples were scored with the EPT rubric because those students may be taking the EPT.) The Smarter Balanced scoring guide is really three scoring guides in one, and is an unwieldy beast. Here I have reduced it to its basic categories:

Organization/Purpose (4 points)

  • A clear claim, focused for the purpose and audience
  • Varied transitional strategies to clarify relationships
  • Effective introduction and conclusion
  • Logical progression of ideas; connection of ideas; syntactic variety
  • Acknowledgement of opposing arguments

Evidence/Elaboration (4 points)

  • Relevant evidence from sources is specific and well-integrated
  • Clear citations and attribution
  • Effective elaboration (may include relevant personal experience)
  • Vocabulary appropriate to audience and purpose
  • Effective style

Conventions (2 points)

  • Sentence formation, punctuation, grammar and spelling

The original scoring guide is available on the Smarter Balanced site. The 11th grade version is on page 96. I have also created a rudimentary Word version.

One important thing I noticed when I was reviewing the sample papers was that they ding students for formulaic organization. One student wrote a typical five-paragraph essay with a claim-and-three-reasons thesis: “Cities and government should not be paying money to have public art pieces put up around towns because it could raise taxes, the art could get ruined and some people could find the art offensive.” The scorer’s response is:

  • Introduction is present. Conclusion simply repeats much of the introduction.
  • Progression of ideas is formulaic

They give the student only “2” out of “4” points for “Organization and Purpose.” So the five-paragraph essay is not going to fare well on the CAASPP. Either the Roman speech or the sort of modified version of it I created for the “Essay Process” post would work better.  Both implement rhetorical principles that are embedded in this scoring guide and address opposing viewpoints.

In a future post I will analyze this scoring guide in more detail. We have also received questions about what they mean by “elaboration,” so I will discuss that.

Ken Bruffee’s Short Course on Writing

In Reading Rhetorically, Bean et al cite Ken Bruffee’s A Short Course on Writing as their source for the “Descriptive Outlining” activity. The first edition was published in 1972. I started teaching writing around 1979, and I had a copy. I don’t think I ever ordered it for a class, but I may have. It is still in print in a 4th edition, but it is from Pearson now, so it costs $95. I found a copy of the 3rd edition from Amazon for $5. The forward to the 4th edition, by Harvey Kail and John Trimbur, was published separately as an article in Writing Center Journal. It provides a good summary of the history of the book and the influence it has had.


This is a book that has origins similar to Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. Bruffee found himself in the early ’60’s teaching writing with no clue about what to do or how to respond. He had trouble filling the class time productively and was spending inordinate hours marking every error, but seeing no improvement. We have all been there, I think. His solution to filling class time was to organize the course as a writing workshop with students helping students, the collaborative learning for which he is famous. His solution to the response problem was to teach simple forms of organization and insist that the paragraphs accomplish specific rhetorical tasks. He talks about the “Short Course Form” which is a three-paragraph essay, and he has a four-paragraph form, and others. These can be expanded and adapted. He also teaches “propositions” “assumptions” and support. It is pretty Aristotelian, but not overtly so. The theoretical background for the collaboration is the usual collection of social constructionist suspects.

Two things struck me as I started revisiting Bruffee: 1) This is very similar to the approach to writing we are developing in ERWC (I was probably retaining stuff from the 1st edition without remembering it consciously) and 2) Bruffee’s approach is sort of timeless. One of his goals was “to find out what the students are thinking.” That strikes me as an excellent goal for a writing class!

The course starts out with exercises in storytelling, brainstorming, focused freewriting, and generalizing. Then he begins to work on turning generalizations into “propositions” that can be defended. The next exercises and writing assignments work through proposition plus two reasons, “Nestorian” order (putting your best reason last), strawman plus one reason, and then “concession.” You can see that this gently introduces opposing viewpoints. Along the way, he works on transitions and coherence. He does not allow students to write conclusions until later in the course because the students have a tendency toward unnecessary summarizing and saving their main proposition until the end.

Descriptive outlining is introduced as a way for the student writer to “know exactly what is going on” in his or her own essay. They are to create one for every essay they write, and if there is a discrepancy between the essay and the outline, they are supposed to revise the essay to make it do what they want it to do. However, example essays are included with both “basic” and “detailed” descriptive outlines, so the technique also serves as a way to analyze other texts. It is an essential part of the course, something they apply to everything they read and write.

Section Four is about creating a “meaningful ending.” It is about conclusions. Students don’t write conclusions until page 153 of the book. Section Five is about research writing.

In summary:

  • Students write in class about topics of their own choosing.
  • Students help each other improve their writing through questions and structured activities similar to ERWC activities.
  • Students mostly write essays that take a “proposition plus two reasons” three-paragraph form.
  • Opposing arguments are introduced first through a “strawman” paragraph, then later by presenting a more valid argument and conceding its validity.
  • Students write basic descriptive outlines of each essay they read or write. In some cases they write “detailed” descriptive outlines. Descriptive outlines are a normal part of the revision process.
  • The simple formats allow the instructor to respond easily to the ideas in the paper, saving much time and making comments more productive.
  • When students are more fluent, they can begin writing conclusions and otherwise expanding the format.

It seems to me that there is much here that could be adapted to ERWC. The spirit of Bruffee’s approach is quite consistent with our own principle of respecting the student’s intelligence and being interested in what they think. And what we are principally struggling with right now is the form of the essay: five-paragraph essay, Roman six-part speech, or more organic structures. Bruffee solves the formula problem by teaching a reasonable, but incomplete format that builds skills that will be very useful later. He even says that it is good if students strongly feel like writing a concluding sentence because that means they are developing a rhetorical feeling for the essay. They can write that sentence, he says, but they shouldn’t turn it in with the essay. I have often said that if we teach a formula, it should contain the seeds of its own destruction. Bruffee’s certainly does.

Bruffee still seems fresh to me–practical, doable, principled, grounded.  And his question, “What are the students thinking?” asked in a course that helps them communicate their ideas but leaves them pretty much in charge, seems consistent with both the psychoanalytic approaches and the postprocess/postpedagogy anti-theory that is prevalent in composition these days. Definitely worth a look.

The Arc Revised

The ERWC Steering Committee met on 10/16/15 at the CSU Chancellor’s Office. Among many issues that were discussed was the language of the ERWC Arc. There were two main points of contention:

  • Is “selecting” the right word for the stage of the process that is between reading and writing, what the ERWC template calls “Connecting Reading to Writing”?
  • Does the arc misrepresent what is a recursive and complex process as a linear, stage-driven one?

We had an extended conversation about the word “selecting.” This is a crucial turning point in the student’s relationship with the texts and many different things are going on. It is a Janus-like doorway that swings both ways, looking backward and forward. We tried many words–engaging, framing, connecting, taking a stance, aligning, joining the conversation, positioning (selecting is part of positioning), composing meaning through reading and composing meaning through writing, formulating, aligning, reconsidering, and answering. We considered for a moment adding a seventh term, but because one of our considerations is to create metcognitive terms that students can transfer to other situations, we decided that six terms is already a lot.

We finally decided on “responding.” It is general enough to contain the other processes, and it captures the backward and forward gaze of the moment. “Selecting” was too narrow. You can download a revised version of the “ERWC Arc” Handout.

Here is an image of what it looks like.  The .pdf version in the link above looks better.


The second issue was about the linear nature of the model. Here we need to think about the purpose of the representation. Back in the early days of composing process research, a four-stage model–pre-writing, composing, revising, and proofreading–was proposed. Protocol analysis quickly determined that the actual writing process was recursive, that writers did not simply complete one stage and move on to the next. A difficulty in composing might send the writer back to some kind of pre-writing activity, and revising might lead to further composing. The four-stage model was abandoned as simplistic and naive. However, if I am talking to engineers about teaching writing, the four-stage model makes a lot of sense to them. If I then point out that in reality the process is more complex, they just nod. Of course it is. Everything is recursive.

The concept of the arc came out of teacher comments and observations that we did as part of our i3 study. Teachers were not finishing the modules. They were spending too much time on the reading and running out of time for the writing. We are not proposing the arc as an accurate cognitive model for designing research. It is more about the design of modules. As with any simplification, it has its limitations, but as a tool for delivering a quick understanding of ERWC practices, I think it works well.

The arc is also for students. It shows them that there is more to a writing assignment than reading a text and summarizing it. “Responding” encompasses the complex process of having a dialogue with a text and joining the conversation. I think it is a good choice.

ERWC Arc Handout

I think that the concept of the ERWC “Arc” is important to help teachers understand the fundamental pedagogical concepts of ERWC and to help students internalize the concepts so that they can transfer them to other rhetorical situations.  To promote this concept, I created a handout, which has been formatted and enhanced by my wife HeeJung.  Here is an image of it:

ERWC-Arc-Handout ImageThe handout illustrates the concepts of “Text to Text” and the progression of tasks built in to every ERWC module.   Download a .pdf version here: ERWC Arc Handout.

The Gatsby Module: A Draft

I have finished a draft of the Gatsby module (Note: new ERWC 3.0 draft here, as of 10/12/17). This is a complete student version that is ready for feedback and perhaps piloting. It has not been put into the official format, nor has it been edited for consistency. It has not been aligned with standards, though I think the alignments are easy to see.

I need to create a teacher version, so some feedback from teachers on what is unclear would be helpful. This is the first module that prominently features the “arc” language–preparing, understanding, questioning, selecting, writing, revising–so feedback on how that works would be much appreciated. Also, there are some activities here that have not been used before.

Module Description

This module is designed for 11th grade, probably near the end of the first semester. It is designed to allow students to explore multiple critical perspectives and develop their own approach to the novel. There are five possible writing prompts. Each asks students to take a position, write a thesis statement, and support their arguments with evidence from the text. The module does not require students to read secondary sources or do any research. The focus is entirely on the novel itself.

Module Background

The Great Gatsby is among the recommended texts for 11th grade in the CCSS and has been in the 11th grade curriculum for decades. It is a superbly written novel with a complex, multi-faceted structure, flawed but interesting characters, and engaging themes and issues. It is also short. Much is packed into its 180 pages.

The novel is bristling with symbols, metaphors and other literary devices, carefully deployed, but also easy to find and interpret. It is common in teaching this novel to focus on these devices. This module includes those discussions, but also enables other approaches. The overall approach is something I call “Guided Reader Response.” The activities invoke a possible perspective, focus on particular aspects of the text, and allow students to draw their own conclusions and make their own interpretations, building up to their own reading of the novel, which they will express in the final paper. As they work through the novel, they will write down vocabulary, make predictions, create summaries at various points, and share their interpretations with others.

This module has been designed to be significantly shorter than previous literary modules in ERWC, such as 1984 or Brave New World. It should take about four weeks to complete.

ERWC Leadership Certification 2015: Opening Speech

The following speech was given at both Leadership Certification events, on June 16 in Sacramento and on June 19 in Los Angeles. I wanted to create an upbeat opening for the event, celebrate the positive findings of the i3 study, thank many people for their hard work, emphasize the concept of “transfer,” and introduce the new slogan, “text to text,” which I hoped would help teachers trace the arc of a module and get to the destination without getting bogged down in prereading and reading.


Welcome to the 12th year of ERWC! It’s been a long, interesting trip and the past year has been especially exciting. We are in the third year of our i3 study and soon there will be an exhaustive report. Tony will talk about this more, but I have heard that we have robust, statistically significant evidence that ERWC increases college readiness. We suspected this all along, but it is nice to have our suspicions confirmed by a rigorous, quasi-experimental study.

ERWC has a history of being ahead of the curve. We also have staying power. We were doing Common Core before Common Core even existed. I have a feeling that ERWC will still exist in some form after Common Core has morphed into something else. A hot topic in the field of composition and rhetoric right now is “transfer.” Researchers are asking questions such as

Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?

Is it possible to “teach for transfer”?

As you know from Nelson Graff’s most excellent article on the ERWC website, “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice”

Four aspects of teaching make it more likely that students will transfer their learning:

  • Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
  • Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
  • The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
  • Students get plenty of practice.

As you know, ERWC does all of that.

A study described in a recent book, Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak found that in many cases, students did not transfer knowledge and skills from their Freshman Composition course to other courses and tasks. Whether they did or not depended a lot on how the course was taught. Students in the “Teaching for Transfer” course were much more likely to use the skills taught later than students in an expressive writing course or a cultural studies course. Students in these latter types of courses were much more likely to fall back on what they learned in high school, especially if they got good grades in English in high school and considered themselves to be good writers.

That’s right. What you teach in high school is likely to persist for a long time. This can cause problems sometimes if students overgeneralize their knowledge and write five-paragraph essays when they are supposed to write lab reports, or feel that using first person or passive voice is a sin and a crime. But the skills and concepts you impart may still be serving the students you teach for their whole lives.

I recently taught a 300-level writing course for English majors called “Advanced Expository Writing.” I taught them many modes of rhetorical and stylistic analysis including stasis theory, tropes and figures, cumulative and period sentences, principles of organization such as BLUF (“Bottom Line Up Front”) and many other strategies. I reinforced these by going over what was in their “rhetorical toolkits” every other week. Still, when I asked them to freewrite about their “theory of writing” in the ninth week of the course, almost everything they included was something they learned in high school. High school English teachers have a powerful influence!

What ERWC can do is make that influence broader and more appropriately applicable to a wider range of discourses and situations. For concepts to transfer, the students need metalanguage to conjure up the concept. They need terms for what they are doing, and they need to remember them. Ethos, logos, and pathos are a good example. Easy to remember, powerful concepts, applicable to any rhetorical situation.

This is why we teach rhetoric. We spend a great deal of time teaching the essay, a genre that is pretty much a school genre. If we teach business letters, they have got another genre, but one that might be handled differently in different contexts. We can teach other genres, one by one. But if we teach rhetoric, we are teaching concepts that apply to any communicative context. The elements of the rhetorical situation–audience, purpose, available means of persuasion, the three appeals, kairos–are by definition metacognitive and portable. They transfer.

And of course in ERWC we use the same strategies over and over, so students know that they will use it again, and after many repetitions, they are likely to bring those strategies with them to college.

So we are really very much ahead of the game on transfer. We’ve got the concepts, we’ve got the terms, we’ve got the repetition, we’ve got the practice. Also, we are doing this with both reading and writing, which even sophisticated folks like Kathleen Blake Yancy don’t do.

So transfer is one of the themes of our conference today. Another related theme is our new slogan, “Text to Text.” ERWC modules are designed to follow an “arc” from an existing, often professional text (or texts), through a series of reading and writing activities to the production of a new student text. This is what we mean by “Text to Text.” The power of the module to induce transfer is activated by the journey from an old text to a new one. In order to demonstrate this text to text concept we have created a series of micro-modules that make it easier to see the “arc” of a module. You will undoubtedly encounter some of these later in the day.

Our session today is a celebration of our accomplishments, an introduction of these new themes, and a test run for our new committee structure. We now have a steering committee, a high school committee, a middle school committee, and an expansion committee. All of these committees have made a tremendous effort to make this event the best Leadership Certification session ever. Nancy and I thank all the committee members for their ideas, innovation, and hard work.

As you attend your sessions, think about transfer, text to text, the arc of a module, and the principles and practices of ERWC. As you learn, discuss, comment, and ask questions, remember to have fun, laugh, and share the joy of teaching with your colleagues. We are all in this together!

Writing An ERWC Module: TOC

In a series of posts, I am working through the ERWC Assignment Template step-by-step as if I were writing a module around a short article by Michael Kinsley about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban of Big Gulp sodas.  These posts appear below in typical reverse-chronological blog format.  If you want to read them in the right order, click on the “Module Projects” tab to find a Table of Contents page with clickable links.

Writing an ERWC-Style Module: Choosing Texts

I have written four ERWC modules and substantially revised several more. Most of my own modules turned out to be about full-length works, including Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Writing a module around a novel is an interesting, complex, and time-consuming task. I will take that up later. The first module I wrote, however, was “The Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page,” written around a short piece by Jeremy Rifkin, “A Change of Heart about Animals.”

I had found the Rifkin article in the L.A. Times long before the ERWC task force had even been formed. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and I have long been in the habit of noticing interesting, teachable pieces that I might be able to use in a writing class. I used to cut articles out of the newspaper and paste them up on 8 ½ X 11 paper with rubber cement so that I could photocopy them. The internet has made that process much easier. I collected the Rifkin article because it was about an interesting issue, it was short, and it was rhetorically interesting, in that it used scientific studies largely to make emotional appeals. When the ERWC taskforce decided to try to write teaching units, this article immediately came to mind.

The “Rhetoric of the Op-Ed” module started with an interesting text. It is also possible to start with an issue or topic and then search for appropriate texts. The issue should

  • Be interesting to students.
  • Be appropriate for the age and maturity of the students.
  • Be debatable in that there are at least two possible positions (and preferably more) that reasonable people could hold.

The text or texts that form the basis of the module should

  • Be interesting to students.
  • Be well-written, or at least not poorly written, in terms of style, organization, and argument (unless the educational purpose of the module is to analyze poorly written texts).
  • Be rhetorically interesting in terms of the writer’s appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos, arrangement of evidence and arguments, and conformity to genre conventions, or lack thereof.
  • Be “right-sized”: short enough to teach and long enough to accomplish the purpose.
  • Be appropriate to the age and reading level of the students in terms of ideas, sentence structure, and vocabulary (though with the scaffolding provided in an ERWC module, students can read more difficult texts than they otherwise would be able to).

In the last update and expansion of the ERWC curriculum, I served as module troubleshooter. Most modules that we ended up not being able to salvage had fundamental problems with the nature of the issue, the quality of the texts, or both. Other things can be revised and improved, but if the beginning premises of the module are flawed, it is nearly impossible to fix.

It is quite possible to write a module around a single short text. The original version of the “Op-Ed” module contained only the Rifkin text. The current version of “Racial Profiling” has only one text. If both the issue and the writing are interesting, a single text can carry a whole module. Of course, there are also modules, such as “Bring a Text You Like to Class,” that include no built-in texts and are essentially sequenced activities that revolve around students finding and bringing in specific kinds of texts to the project. Such modules are complex to design, but offer clear advantages as well.

However, most modules involve multiple texts. The revised version of the “Op-Ed” module includes the Rifkin text, a similar Op-Ed piece by Victoria Braithwaite called “Hooked on a Myth: Do Fish Feel Pain?” and an online magazine article by Ed Yong, “Of Primates and Personhood: Will According Rights and ‘Dignity’ to Nonhuman Organisms Halt Research?” While Rifkin is a journalist summarizing research to make philosophical and ethical points, Victoria Braithwaite is a neuroscientist reporting on research about the pain-sensing systems of fish done in her own laboratory. While Braithwaite’s conclusions are consistent with Rifkin’s ethical concerns, her ethos is quite different. The Yong article explores some of the possible consequences of granting rights to great apes and some of the divisions in the animal rights community, taking the argument about the treatment of animals to a new level. The three articles do not take different sides on one issue, but explore different aspects of issues related to the relationship between humans and animals. The module avoids binary pro and con arguments in favor of nuanced positions, moving from consideration of individual ethical choices to the social consequences of legislation on these issues.

Even at the early stages of module development, the developer should also be thinking about the writing assignment. All of the pre-reading, reading, and critical activities of the module should lead up to the writing at the end. The first version of the “Op-Ed” module was designed around a “letter to the editor” assignment because one of the directives of the English Language Arts standards was that students should write in multiple genres. The revised version includes a possible essay assignment about whether an “Animal Bill of Rights” would be a good idea. Everything that the students have learned up to this point—the ideas, the arguments, the vocabulary, the data, the discussions—is relevant to the writing project at the end.

Of course, the writing assignment may evolve and change as the module is written. A module has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with an arc from beginning to end. As you write your module, it is important not to focus only on what the student is doing at that particular point, but also what they have already done and learned, and what they will do and learn in the future.

Next up: Designing pre-reading activities.